Is Braille Obsolete

For several decades, the rise of new technology has put into question the need for visually impaired students to learn Braille. Because most people with visual impairments are not totally blind, improved electronic magnifiers have allowed most to function without much difficulty. Others have replaced Braille with recorded texts or print-to-voice machines. This technology has caused the number of blind people who are Braille literate to plummet over the years. In 1990, the New York Times reported that “only 12 percent of visually handicapped students read Braille, down from nearly 50 percent in 1965.” While some argue that Braille is obsolete, many advocates for the visually impaired - particularly organizations that are composed mainly of individuals with visual impairments - insist that learning Braille is still a valuable part of becoming a successful and independent visually impaired person.

Marc Maurer, president of The National Federation for the Blind, claimed that "There are a lot of blind people who can't take advantage of better employment opportunity simply because they can't use written words with facility." The story of Kenneth Silberman, an aerospace engineer with severe visual impairments, backs up Mr. Maurer’s claim. Having completed college without ever learning Braille, Silberman found that he could not finish his master’s degree without it. He had been working primarily with taped materials, but difficulties arose as the material he studied became more sophisticated and, as he questioned his interviewer, “have you ever tried to look for a specific piece of information on a cassette?"

The decrease in Braille literacy also goes hand in hand with the movement for inclusion of individuals with disabilities into public school classrooms. It is easier for regular education teachers, most of whom are not familiar with Braille, to use recorded materials. In this age of technology, it is not surprising that we forget about Braille as an option for visually impaired students. However, there is still great value in being literate without the aide of machines for magnifying, listening, or translating. Current federal law only requires that individuals with visual impairments receive an individualized education plan, which can include Braille parents feel it is important. Educators and organizations such as the National Federation for the Blind should continue to broadcast the importance of Braille, so that parents - and the system - do not short change their children.

Contributed by: Mike Lederman

Footnote: De Witt, Karen. (1992). How Best to Teach the Blind: The Growing Battle Over Braille.